So what does writing literacy look like in the context of these Read/Write Web tools? I mean think of the many different ways that we “write” in our networked lives, ways that differ from the modes that were in primary use just 10 or 15 years ago when I was actually teaching students “how to write” (whatever that means.) Here’s just a quick list of the different ways writing occurs for me today:

  • Blogging, which, when I have the time to do it, means expending some intellectual sweat into synthesizing ideas and reflecting on the things that I am reading. It’s writing that is intended to engage; I constantly put myself in the reader’s shoes and try to anticipate reactions and responses because (surprise!) the reader can.
  • Commenting, which, when I have the time to do it (and I’ll stop adding that from here on out) is meant to probe or support or question. I wonder, is there a “literacy” to commenting?
  • Writing articles or essays for publication, which is the most traditional writing that I do these days. The sense of audience is still present, but there is a huge difference in the way it settles over what I write. I know I may never get feedback on those pieces, that I may never engage in a conversation around the ideas as I do here on my blog. And that changes the voice, the tone, and the style. (Writing books would probably fall in here as well.)
  • Tweeting, which has become a bizarre new micro genre, hasn’t it? Tweets are pretty narrow in scope for me. I Tweet  to update my presence (“On a propellor plane to somewhere.”), to ask a question, to respond to others’ Tweets, or to play. But the asynchronousness of it makes it difficult. I’m writing for response, but I’m not as patient about getting that response as I am with my blog. And obviously, it’s mostly reaction, thin thinking, not sweat.
  • Chatting or IM, which I am surprised at how much I do, usually in Skype and Gmail. It’s more synchronous, I don’t care as much about misspellings and errors, it’s conversation. But the way I chat certainly varies depending on whom I’m chatting with.
  • Writing in video or audio, which I don’t do so much, but have a couple of ideas that I’m working on. Writing in pictures, digital storytelling, can be very compelling and useful but require a different way of thinking about the message, no?

And I’m sure there are others. But I wonder, with all of these different ways now of communicating in writing, does that change what writing literacy is?

All of this comes from a recent post by Barbara Ganley, one of my favorite all-time bloggers and one of the few teachers I think I would actually get into a four-walled classroom with again. In her Creative NonFiction course at Middlebury this fall, she’s leading her students into a whole bunch of different writing environments in ways that I find fascinating. I mean, think of what that course would have been a decade ago. Pretty much essay. Pretty much paper. Maybe some hypertext. Maybe some getting outside the classroom in limited ways. But check out her unit on the uses of multimedia to “write” online. Not only will her students be blogging, they will be creating group “Twitterstories“, linking to pieces of art and posting links to the class Flickr group, writing in one-sentence hypertext shorts, and creating digital stories using the tools outlined in Alan Levine’s 50 Web 2.0 Ways to Tell a Story resource. And more.

Barbara blogs about the course, saying:

This is the most challenging course I have ever taught because I’m asking my students–right from their first days as undergraduates– in large part to unlearn how they have been taught to read, to write, to connect with the measure of their own work. [Emphasis mine.]

When I get to the part about literacy in my presentations, I always ask how many of the teachers in the room are teaching their students to read and write in different modes, in hypertext, with art and photos, in audio and video, using all of them combined. I’m surprised if I get more than a hand or two going up. And I’m sure that what’s happening in Barbara’s class isn’t happening in very many other college courses either. Traditional writing is absolutely still important, but writing is more complex than just text on a page (usually a paper page) these days.

Makes me wonder, with all of the different ways in which I write, all of the different audiences I write for, all of the different ways I attempt to communicate and engage in conversations and connections around my ideas, it makes me wonder whether we’ll ever see these many modes of writing as important enough to teach our kids.

(Photo “Hand (made)” by 3blindmice.)

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